Forensic database storing Uyghur files draws controversy

An article in Nature, the world’s leading scientific journal, recently spotlighted a research database widely used for police investigations and paternity testing, noting that its storage of profiles of minority groups such as the Uighurs has sparked ethical controversy. The Chinese government has been collecting DNA samples across the country for the past several years, raising concerns about high-tech surveillance.

The rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl in a Dutch village in 1999 was suspected by some to be the work of Iraqi or Afghan refugees at the village’s shelter center, once sparking serious conflict in the local community, the British journal Nature said in an article Tuesday. But when forensic doctors matched semen DNA collected from the crime scene with a research database and files from elsewhere, they found that the killer was likely of Northwest European descent, suggesting that some villagers’ suspicions were unfounded. Years later, with the help of more DNA work, a local farmer was found guilty.

Storing Uyghur genetic profiles stirs controversy

The database mentioned above is the Y Chromosome Haplotype Reference Database (YHRD), which was first released online in 2000. The study now has more than 300,000 anonymous Y-chromosome profiles showing the fingerprints of male lineage with specific genetic markers in more than 1,300 different ethnic groups around the world.

The Nature article cites European geneticists who say the database, which is widely used to solve sex crimes and paternity tests, is ethically problematic because it stores thousands of profiles obtained from men who are unlikely to give informed consent, including minority groups such as the Xinjiang Uighurs and Eastern Europeans such as the Roma. Data.

Back in 2016, Xinjiang began implementing a universal medical screening process that involved tens of millions of people. But Uyghurs and human rights groups say authorities have taken biometric information such as DNA samples in the process.

Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer who now lives in the United States, said that in such an oppressive social environment in Xinjiang, there is no informed consent to speak of.

“Under the current climate of terror in Xinjiang, including arbitrary detention, torture, blanket surveillance, threats to family members, etc., no one dares to disagree.”

The Nature article describes the work of Yves Moreau, a computational biologist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. In recent years, he has been leading calls for major journals and this database to launch investigations into potentially unethical research, with a focus on China. in 2019, Moreau discovered a review of nearly 40,000 Chinese male Y chromosome profiles by this database two years ago. The paper’s lead authors were two of the database’s curators, who are also forensic geneticists working at Berlin’s largest research hospital, while other authors included researchers from China’s public security system. Morrow realized that there was a problem with this database.

Large-scale collection of male DNA in China

Although the paper notes that the profiles were taken with the informed consent of the individuals involved, it is unclear to reporters under what circumstances they were taken. A report released last year by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a research institute, showed that Chinese police began collecting DNA samples, including blood, from adult and underage men across the country in 2017 to create a set of genetic profiles covering 700 million men. Before that, authorities had already been doing similar work in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Wang Songlian, a senior researcher with the China division of the international organization Human Rights Watch, noted that while the collection of samples is already underway throughout China, the operation is particularly worrisome in Xinjiang.

“All people between the ages of 12 and 65 have to have their DNA taken, which is a much higher percentage (than for Han Chinese elsewhere). In a ‘crackdown’ like the one in Xinjiang, Uyghurs basically can’t refuse such a request.”

Tahir Hamut, a Uyghur filmmaker who now lives in Virginia, told the station previously that Urumqi police took his blood, fingerprints, voice and facial information at a local police station and was told to go to a clinic for a free medical examination a month later, but he never got the results.

The report released by the aforementioned Australian think tank estimates that the Chinese government aims to collect DNA samples from 35 to 70 million men, or about 5 to 10 percent of the country’s male population. Authorities do not need to take a sample from every male because they can find the genetic profile of a male relative from someone’s DNA sample.

Chinese police say the database could be used to catch criminals, and donors have agreed to provide their DNA samples. But human rights groups generally agree that such a database could violate citizens’ privacy and be used to punish the families of dissidents and activists.

Wang Songlian, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the lack of a legal framework governing the collection of personal information in China provides a breeding ground for data abuse.

“There are no privacy regulations in China, and there is absolutely no regulation of the circumstances under which public security can take these biological samples, and DNA is one of the more sensitive categories of biological samples because it can reveal not only your personal information, but also the relationship between you and your family.”

The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress just passed the Data Security Law last week, noting that a major purpose of the legislation is to safeguard data security and protect the legitimate rights and interests of individuals. But some scholars say the law will pave the way for the government to access data owned by tech companies, leaving the public with a further loss of privacy.